Clarissa Wei: Celebrating the ocean with an indigenous Taiwanese tribe

[Taiwan] The Amis tribe in Taiwan is the largest aboriginal group on the island. They are known for their connection to the sea, and it is for that reason that every April they host an Ocean Festival, where the community gathers at the beach and pay respect to the god of the ocean.

In Chinese, the ceremony is called Hai Ji (海祭), which directly translates to the Ocean Festival. In the Amis language, it is romanized to Pafafoi, which means to sacrifice a pig.

I spent my days there running into the waves and my nights reclined on the empty black sand beach, a beer in hand watching the stars. We foraged for black nightshade with local schoolchildren. We ate seaweed collected from the tide pools and lived in a wood cabin built completely by hand, enclosed by a plot of wonderful vegetables. We slaughtered a pig and I watched a man slit the swine’s throat, blood staining his knife, his arms, and eventually the ground. I ate raw pig thigh sashimi, drenched in soy sauce and chili. It was chewy and thick; I tasted only the soy sauce. We got into handmade boats and rowed out to the ocean to kick off the beginning of the Amis’ tribe fishing season.

Amis men pushing a boat out into the water. All photos by the author.
Amis men pushing a boat out into the water. All photos by the author.

“All of this was nearly lost,” Siku Wu says. Wu is the founder of Torik, a community center in Douli, Taitung County. For nearly a decade, the Sea Harvest Festival was nearly extinct with many other Amis traditions because of local Christian influences and government pressure to assimilate indigenous tribes into mainstream Taiwan. The Amis was encouraged to forget their language in lieu of Mandarin Chinese. Determined to bring back what was lost, Wu took on a massive restoration project nearly 40 years ago and built Torik from scratch.

“I brought together a group of old men and we sat down and researched traditions,” she says. “The Ocean Festival is a celebration of sea and is performed in hopes that our fishing season will be blessed.” The Amis tribe used to be dependent on the sea. Their fishing season goes from April to September. The rest of the year, the primary food sources shifts to the land and a harvest festival is held in commemoration of that.

Pig sashimi.
Pig sashimi.

“It is important for the ocean to rest,” Wu says.

Sustainability is the core message of the tribe. Utensils used to be made exclusively out of bamboo, grey water is recycled back into the farmland, and certain animals—like the eagle, monkey, and sea turtle—are incorporated into local myths so that they are protected and not hunted.

“Every year around this time, flying fish start coming down from the north. Our primary catch is mahi mahi, who eat the flying fish. We won’t catch a lot of flying fish for that reason because that can destroy the food chain,” Wu says. “We only catch as much as we need.” However, this no longer rings true. Because of modern developments, all throughout Taiwan, industrial fleets have replaced traditional fishing.

Eating nightshade
Eating nightshade

Today, all the Amis speak Mandarin Chinese and there are very few people from the age of 25 to 40 left in the villages. Most opt for life in the cities.

The Ocean Festival is one of the few times in the year where the entire tribe will come home and gather in Douli—the oldest recorded Amis settlement in Taiwan.

On ceremony day, which fell on April 16 this year, a boat of young Amis men row out to sea with wooden paddles. They kill a white chicken and throw it into the ocean. It’s a hope for a smooth fishing season and for the fishermen to be spared from the angry white flaps of the waves. This is the first offering to the god of the ocean.

The sacrificial chicken.
The sacrificial chicken.

The men gather around a circle made up of boulders and drink rice wine while the tribal chief says a prayer. At the base of the ring, facing the ocean, is a pig’s head—gently torched so that it has a burnt exterior.

“For the Ocean Festival, we offer a pig. For the Harvest Festival, we offer fish,” Wu says. The duality makes sense; they give the best that they have in hopes of reaping the best.

Sitting beside the pig head is an assortment of vices: betel nut, rolled tobacco, and rice wine. They are used as a bridge to the gods, a way to communicate with the spirits. There’s a pig heart as well, which, according to Wu, symbolizes the heart of the tribe. A fire burns on the side—a signal to the spiritual realm that a ceremony is being conducted.

At the end of the powwow, the men in the circle get up and walk toward the sea through an arch made out of miscanthus, a tall Chinese grass. They spit on the ground behind them and symbolically enter through a portal, careful to not look back.

“This signifies leaving the past behind and entering into the spiritual realm,” Wu says.

The miscanthus arch
The miscanthus arch

They line up by the ocean; the chief says a few words. They each throw a piece of fresh pig liver, the most nutritious organ, into the waves—another offering to the god of the ocean and a wish to be blessed during the upcoming fishing season.

The women and children sit in the back observing, sometimes breaking into song or dance. And at the end of it all, as with things of this nature, a feast is held—a marvelous gala with foraged seaweeds of three different colors, grilled fish, and pork with sticky rice. It’s all served on long, hollowed-out bamboo poles. We drink taro stalk soup with chunks of pig’s blood.

The feast is eaten out of a hollow-out log
The feast is eaten out of a hollow-out log

At lunch, I sit across a line of older Amis men and women. They eat with their hands; they pass wine down the line. They are the ones who sing; the younger folks can barely keep up.

“We have an aging population here and it’s a huge problem,” Wu says. Wu’s mission is to change that—to preserve traditions and encourage sustainability. She notes that in past ceremonies, the men would row out and spear a couple of fish for the tribe. Today, there’s not enough fish in the ocean to do that and very few young men retain that knowledge.

The feast included foraged seaweeds, grilled fish, and pork with sticky rice
The feast included foraged seaweeds, grilled fish, and pork with sticky rice.

“Back in the day, fathers would take their son out fishing, but they would take two separate boats. This was to encourage independence,” Wu tells me. “The father would teach the son how to catch fish, but he would do it in song. It became a duet, a lyrical ballad that all the men knew.”

I think of the children. They seemed more interested in learning English from my friends and I than learning about seaweeds and wild vegetation. The teachers lamented how it was a huge problem.

“Sometimes I wish that they weren’t taught Mandarin and were fluent in Amis instead,” one teacher told me.

At one point of the day, my friends and I run into the ocean for a swim. The kids follow, screaming and yelling, fully clothed in T-shirts and jeans. A girl comes up to me, soaking wet.

“Do you know how to swim?” she yells, over the roar of the waves.

“Yeah!” I respond.

“Can you teach me?” she says, breaking into a huge smile, following me.

Bewildered, I look at her and all her friends.

They didn’t know how to swim.


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